Call him a gangster, an unreconstructed Soviet spy, world-class egomaniac or whatever else comes to mind, but Russian President Vladimir Putin is nothing if not cagey. Sensing an opportunity with a weak and vacillating occupant in the White House, Putin jumped on the opening provided by Secretary of State John Kerry’s seemingly off-hand suggestion that Russia take custody of Syria’s chemical weapons. Never mind that Syrian dictator Bashar Assad had never previously admitted even having such weapons. And never mind that Putin had previously claimed to have no sway with Assad. International diplomacy never lets a little thing like the record get in the way.
Putin can thank President Obama. After stumbling from his initial demand last year that Assad must be removed from power, to warning that a “red line” would be crossed if chemical weapons were used by Assad and then, when they were used repeatedly, threatening U.S. military strikes with or without the consent of Congress, Obama has provided a telling example of what “leading from behind” means in actual practice. Other presidents have stumbled and recovered. JFK, for instance, admirably redeemed himself in the months following his Bay of Pigs debacle with his coolness and firm consistency during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Nothing in the present case suggests a similar recovery by Obama can ever be expected.
Everything about the way Obama, Kerry and the rest of the administration have handled the Syrian situation has been, to use the carefully understated term employed by a Washington Post blogger, “muddled.” Obama has given conflicting, sometimes outright contradictory signals on most of the major points of concern, including most importantly whether the strike(s) he might order would be massive, merely limited or, as Kerry put it, “unbelievably small.”
Whatever he has or has not said or done, however, Obama will be judged by the consequences of his actions with regard to the major objectives he himself articulated:
• Assad may not survive in power or life much longer, but should his demise come about in the near future, it will almost certainly be the result of a sniper’s bullet, an assassin within his closest ranks, or something like what befell Libya’s Gaddafhi. More likely, Assad’s position has been strengthened by virtue of his resolute defiance of the U.S. and his close ties to Russia and Iran.
• Syrian chemical weapons are virtually certain now to be more secure than ever from U.S. efforts toward their eradication, if only because Obama’s dawdling provided more than sufficient time to do so. Even if some kind of “peaceful settlement” is achieved in which these weapons become Putin’s responsibility, there is no way to verify that all of them are accounted for or that Assad is not simply replacing those going to Russia with new ones.
• Obama’s credibility has been shredded, while Russia and Iran are freer to pursue their regional goals, regardless of the outcome in Syria because the American president has been tested and found inadequate to the challenges of leadership.